WIOG thanks the American Water Works Association for permission to share this article.
Water operators play a key role in public health, but have had no industry-recognized, standardized, certification program.
The first Professional Operators – POs – earned their certifications at two celebratory pinning ceremonies in recent months, including one at ACE15 last month in Anaheim. They passed an exam, agreed to a code of conduct and met education, training and on-the-job requirements.
“People working in the water industry often don’t get a lot of recognition,” said Gavin Moore, certification program administrator at the Association of Boards of Certification in Ankeny, Iowa, a certification commission for environmental professionals. “They are the unsung heroes. The public often doesn’t understand how critical they are in making society work the way it does.”
Doctors get their M.D., lawyers their J.D. Accountants have the CPA and engineers earn their P.E. The new operator designation, though not mandatory, includes rigorous standards, eligibility and recertification requirements and disciplinary procedures for POs who don’t measure up.
States have own requirements
Individual states have set their own certification requirements for water operators for many years. The first was New Jersey, back in 1918. These standards vary greatly in rigor and requirement, and prevent operators from being recognized as a professional workforce.
“The new PO designation doesn’t replace state requirements, but sets unified standards that give confidence to the public when operators work outside their jurisdictions,” said Megan Baker, ABC’s director of operations.
Nowhere was this need more apparent than during Hurricane Katrina, when operators from across the country descended on New Orleans to lend a hand. Many of the operators spent days in hotel rooms waiting futilely because the state of Louisiana did not recognize their credentials.
Operators have confidence in co-workers
Another plus to a unified standard is that utility managers better understand an operator’s background during hiring, said Paul Bishop, ABC’s chief executive officer. Also, operators have confidence in the capabilities and conduct of the person working alongside them.
“The PO provides one standard that is ready to handle the challenges of tomorrow,” Bishop said.
To date, 40 water operators have achieved their POs. At the first pinning ceremony last September in New Orleans, the new POs cited professional recognition and greater credibility in the public’s eyes as the main benefits of their new status. Most of the first POs are from the United States, but many inquiries have come in from other countries, including India, Baker said. One new PO is from the Philippines, where he works for a company that does a lot of contract work on U.S. military bases.
The first POs include 35 men and five women, which reflects the gender makeup of the profession, Baker said.
Another 215 water operators are working toward their certification and at least 100 are expected to earn their PO designation by the end of this year, Baker said. They can get their certification in water treatment, wastewater treatment, wastewater collection or water distribution.
New POs pinned at ACE
At the last pinning ceremony at ACE15, eight water operators from across the United States were pinned. One of those was Luis Cuellar, water treatment operator in the Alameda County Water District in California.
“It was quite a special day,” Cuellar said later.
Alan Cranford, water plant manager at the Murfreesboro Water and Sewer Department in Murfreesboro, Tenn., agreed. Cranford gave a touching speech in which he said he started working in water at the age of 7. His dad managed the water and sewer system in their small Alabama town and Cranford helped by mowing grass, pulling weeds out of fences and picking up garbage around the well sites, lift stations and wastewater treatment plant.
“You might think I was crazy,” but I loved what I did, Cranford told the crowd, which included then-AWWA President John Donahue and CEO David LaFrance.
By the time he was 13, Cranford knew he wanted a future in water. But instead, he tried many different career paths, eventually making it back into the industry reading water meters.
“We’ve gone from color wheels to spectrophotometers, GCs, TOC analyzers, online instruments and from strip charts and consoles to SCADA systems, and a bunch of other advances where operators have to have a much wider range of knowledge, skills and abilities to do their job right and to do it well,” Cranford said.
That’s why, he said, the time is now for the professional operator.
The POs are putting their new designation on their business cards, LinkedIn pages, resumes and professional correspondence, Moore said.
“I can stand tall and proud for the service I provide to the community,” Cuellar said. “I don’t feel I have to be recognized for what I do, but I think this new designation will bring our profession much greater attention and even encourage someone to say, ‘I want to be an operator when I grow up.’”